WINTER FORTRESS: The main ice castle at the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival stands illuminated in a rainbow array of lights against the evening sky (BRANDON TAYLOR)
As I stared up at the massive ice castle glistening in front of me, a light flurry of snow gently blowing all around as the sun began to set, the lashes on my right eye froze together. With this temporary impairment, I was only able to enjoy the castle's changing lights—blue, red, pink, purple, blue—at 50 percent.
Aiya!, I thought to myself as the hairs in my nose also began to freeze. What had I gotten myself into?
Dressed in a heavy down winter jacket, insulated Timberland boots and layer upon layer of thermal clothing I felt like I was part of an expedition heading to Antarctica. But despite the frigid, possibly life threatening conditions, the Earth's poles were still thousands of miles away—I was just in Harbin for the annual Harbin Snow and Ice Festival.
In Beijing, where temperatures dive and stay in negative territory during the winter months, I thought I knew what it meant to be cold. Now, standing in front of this illuminated glacial fortress, which I was certain was inhabited by penguins or possibly the abominable snowman, I realized I'd made a gross miscalculation of what temperatures below minus 20 degrees Celsius might feel like.
The flickering, dancing lights provided a pleasant distraction from the cold as I lost feeling in both sets of fingers and toes.
The ice festival had failed to lure me northward last year. As compelling as it was to see one of the most prominent ice festivals in the world, I was fully content with the weather Beijing had to offer—it was cold enough and there was plenty of snow. Why go someplace where it was colder?
That was last year. This year Beijing has lacked the fluffy white stuff, a personal necessity come wintertime. So like a misguided goose, I decided to head north for a winter excursion.
Despite consulting friends who had lived or worked in Harbin prior to my trip, nothing could prepare me for the change in scenery—finally, snow!—or the change in temperature. That first breath of frosty, Siberian air chilled my lungs as I disembarked the train; Jack Frost nipped at my nose as I made my way to the station exit with a crowd of closely packed travelers that provided a bit of additional warmth.
For a moment, Harbin didn't feel much colder than Beijing—and then I stepped into the open plaza in front of the rail station. Suddenly it felt like Jack Frost had punched me in the face; my eyebrows, nose and cheeks quickly started to hurt from the cold as my ungloved hands went numb.
The desire to jump on the first train bound back for Beijing subsided after I flagged down a taxi and zipped across the city to my hotel in the warmth of the cab. Ice monuments lined the sidewalks, as if large chunks of ice had fallen from the sky in a hailstorm of epic proportions and were promptly carved into the icy beauties that dotted the cityscape.
The ice sculptures of Zhaolin Park were expertly crafted with the finest detail. Sculpted animals, real and mythological, kept watch over the park grounds; bridges of ice made for some cautious river crossings; and a few classic Chinese architectural structures dazzled with their size and splendor.
On Zhongyang Dajie, Harbin's central pedestrian street, ice carvings of Disney characters greeted visitors and residents out for a stroll. Mickey, Minnie, Winnie the Pooh, King Triton and others from the treasured Disney vault were out in their icy forms to celebrate the festival. Kids, and a few adults, slipped and slid as they climbed on and had their photo taken with their cartoon favorites.
But even more impressive were the castles, temples and towers of the Ice and Snow World. Each structure was made from blocks of ice carved out of the solidly frozen Songhua River that runs north of the city center. In my youth, my dad and I had struggled to make small, two-room buildings out of packed snow. Seeing entire ice castles that resembled those in Europe, in size and grandeur, made these childhood efforts seem trivial and almost embarrassing.
As night descended, the lights within each ice block that formed the foundation, walls and spires of the buildings were illuminated in an aurora borealis of colors. Against the snow-white ground with the colorful lights dancing about, it felt like I'd slipped into a life-sized snow globe—a machine in the distance dispersing freshly made snow completed the scene.
By the end of the trip, my feet were frozen, my hands sore and my nose red like Rudolph the Reindeer's, but I had a slew of great photos and a new found respect for the word "cold." And like my other foreign friends who had visited the ice festival, I can check Harbin off my list of travel destinations and fondly remember the fun I had in the snow and ice of the northern city, while enjoying warmer climates in the winters to come.
The writer is an American living in Beijing